Mastering the Pour-over

How to solve sea kayaking’s three-dimensional riddle

This story featured in the March 2012 issue.

Photo: Bryan Smith

By Sean Morley

An ocean pour-over is like a river rapid’s salty, schizophrenic cousin. In the course of a typical 15-second swell interval, seawater will gush in and out of these narrow passages between and over seaside boulders. The flow will smash together, and drain away completely. Sometimes, if you time it just right, you can paddle through the gap on the back of the swell, escaping into clear water before the sea drops away to leave you stranded on razor-sharp rocks, waiting for the next pulsing wave to land on you from ahead or behind, or both directions at once.
Still with me? Good, because paddling pour-overs is one of the most dramatic, exciting and satisfying things you can do in a sea kayak. It combines elements of sea, surf and whitewater paddling into a wonderful test of timing, judgment and skill.

Choose your Day: Plan your outing to coincide with a small, long-period swell from a consistent direction. Low swell height means the waves should be less pushy and the troughs less deep—it’s usually the trough that leaves you stranded if your timing is off. In theory, a long period will allow you more time to make it over an obstruction.
Assess the Risk: Before attempting a pour-over, watch it carefully for several wave cycles. Avoid dead-end features, and stay away from crevices, caves that narrow down to less than a boat’s width, or jumbles of rocks that offer no clear exit. Watch what happens when the wave recedes. Are there nasty rock spikes that could pin a kayak? Can you see large barnacles or mussels that could shred gel coat, plastic or skin?

Timing is Everything: The point of a pour-over is to ride the cushion of water created by the wave as it surges over the rock. Go too early and you’ll be in front of the wave, where you risk scraping across rock that is not yet covered or, worse, surfing the wave with no way to control your speed or direction. If you go too late, the cushion of water will dissipate beneath you, leaving you high and dry, likely off balance, waiting for the next wave to engulf you.

Watch and Learn: Getting the timing right requires observation and often several probing runs before you go for the full move. Watch how the wave wraps around the feature. Determine whether the incoming waves or the backwash produce the strongest—and more importantly the longest lasting—flow through the feature. The backwash is often less energetic, more prolonged and thus safer than the incoming surge.

Bring your Skills (and Your Friends): While most intermediate paddlers can master the pour-over, before venturing into the rock gardens you should have strong paddling fundamentals, including an effective forward stroke and good bracing technique using the ‘paddler’s box.’ You should be well practiced in self- and assisted-rescue techniques. The key is to choose your features wisely and paddle with folk you trust to get you out of trouble if things go wrong.

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